Clowns are scary. That’s not so much an opinion as it is science fact. Clowns are scary, and that’s why they’ve been featured in so many horror movies, from the undead clown of Zombieland to Stitches to the titular Killer Klowns from Outer Space to, most recently, Pennywise the Clown in last year’s It, one of biggest and most successful horror movies of all time. Fear of clowns is very much in the zeitgeist these days, as evidenced by the short-lived phenomenon a few years ago when people dressed as clowns were randomly showing up in public places, just standing there and freaking everyone out.
The new horror film Gags uses those recent events as a starting point, but quickly goes into much weirder, darker territory. Pieced together, like Adam Rifkin’s Looking, from iPhone footage, police officer body cams, security footage, and news broadcasts, the movie follows a wide collection of characters over the course of one night when a clown named Gags begins making appearances all over Green Bay, Wisconsin, where the film was shot and takes place. There’s something about Gags that doesn’t seem…right. He’s a scary clown. The crying on the inside kind, I guess.
I tend to struggle with found footage/first-person horror films, which are most often gimmicky and use the approach as a cheap way to keep the budgets low. Gags isn’t like that. While I may have preferred a more straightforward narrative approach to this story, I can see what writer/director Adam Krause (who based his first feature on his own 2016 short film of the same name) is going for. The appearance of Gags around town presents a problem for a number of different groups: the cops want to put a stop to it, the media doesn’t know how to report on it, young people want to capitalize on it by committing a bunch of copycat pranks. It’s a wide landscape to cover. More than that, though, is the idea that so many of us experience events like this through screens these days. If a clown really did start showing up around town (as some supposedly did in 2016), most of us would see it reported on the news or read about it and watch video on social media. It only makes sense that Gags be told through the prism of second-hand footage like this.
Because of the way Krause presents the material, it’s hard to form attachments to any of the characters. The closest we get is to the reporter played by Lauren Ashley Carter, a mainstay of indie horror and a welcome presence in any movie. She and an Alex Jones-type podcaster (Aaron Christensen) who stokes panic and decides to go after Gags himself are the most well-developed, essentially playing opposite sides of the same media coin. The rest of the characters are placeholders meant to represent their subgroup: teenager, cop, etc. We spend enough time with them to get to know them a little, but none of them pop quite as much as Carter or Christensen. Even as an epidemic of sorts begins to break out, it’s hard to get too affected. We don’t really know these people. The epidemic itself is vague and never establishes any rules, but gives the movie a threat that goes beyond just Gags and affords Krause the opportunity to use the visual language of zombie outbreak movies. With Gags himself being mysterious and standoffish by design, the scenes lend the film immediacy.
What stands out most about Gags – beyond the unusual visual and storytelling style – is the streak of incredibly dark humor that runs through it. I guess it stands to reason that a horror movie about a clown would include a great deal of comedy, but you’d be surprised how many filmmakers take the conceit deadly seriously. Krause sees the humor in the whole thing, and populates the movie with characters who are allowed to be funny on screen. It all adds up to an offbeat, unusual horror film that totally has its own identity. Many of the same found footage frustrations still apply, like when the camera cuts away or becomes distorted at precisely the moment that it ought to be showing us what’s happening. It’s a technique that works to create dread and confusion the first few times, but eventually has to be paid off. Gags waits a really long time to pay it off, though that payoff is really something.